Guest post: A very narrow set of options at the end of it

Guest post by Maureen Brian, originally a reply to a question I asked on a Facebook post of hers about the fact that “we have set up the [UK] education system so that, essentially, you have to fail and fail visibly at the academic curriculum before you are allowed to do something else.”

I look back nearly seventy years and I remember the early years of school and that most of it seemed to be just fun. I realise, though, that I learned a hell of a lot then and was better taught than at some stages of secondary.

Now they have to learn, say, to read by this age and be taught by this method, currently phonics but fashions change. Even tiny ones are expected to sit at desks and labour away until they get whatever it is right. So the teachers sit up half the night compiling statistics while the kids have the idea that they might be failures implanted early. No 6 year old should have any concept of being a failure, let alone be applying that to themselves!

And so it goes. By 10 they’ll be spending far too much time practicing for tests – more non-teaching work for teachers – over and again because they must pass the test. No argument, they must pass it.

At secondary from 11, if they can cope with the academic subjects at all then that’s what they must do. Because! Choosing GCSE and later A Levels is governed by the idea that if you have a hope in hell of passing an academic subject then that’s what you must do. The school’s future depends upon getting the right and an increasing proportion of its kids through the academic syllabus.

The brighter you are the more you miss out on, seen across a lifetime. There were elements of this at my secondary school but nowhere near what happens today.

Revolutionary ideas like encouraging a person who wants to be a carpenter but has a keen interest in history, or a dozen similar variants are verboten. You either succeed or fail and success means a prescribed set of academic subjects with a very narrow set of options at the end of it. If you only just made it through those GCSEs then you come out of school with high anxiety and real difficulty getting a decent, rewarding job. You’re in limbo.

While we have been moving in this direction over decades not only have practical and rewarding subjects been eased out at school, as Mike says below, but the 16-19 colleges have been under-funded with their sometimes amazing tutors paid as semi-skilled casual labour and their ability to plan hamstrung by uncertainty about funding even a year ahead.

There are any number of reports festering in Whitehall and in the universities about breadth in education, about parity of esteem for practical subjects, about tailoring what happens to the child’s needs and rate of development, about the need to emphasise social skills and things like financial literacy. And there they rot because if it ain’t immediately quantifiable then it don’t count.

It is very sad. Teachers, brilliant teachers, fight back but things are stacked against them.

The above-mentioned comment by Mike McCauley:

The trades education in the US is a shadow of what it once was. Between good high school programs and unions, that used to be an acceptable, honorable, and well defined path to take. But now, all kids are encouraged to go to university so they will all be “winners”. Only thing is, we’re far short of plumbers, electricians, all tradespeople. And too many college graduates are working at poorly paid service sector jobs, if they’re working at all.

I graduated from university, but I soon discovered that was not the ticket to nirvana that it’s too often represented to be. I’m very glad I had that experience, that at a time when an undergraduate degree from a decent US university was a broad education, not upscale job training as it is too often thought of today. Getting out of the so-called “white collar” workplace was the right thing for me to do, and the severe shortage of skilled people clearly indicates that it should be thought of as a viable path for others as well.

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